Techies build their imagination one brick at a time

The modern era has been defined by many contentious philosophical struggles: evolution vs. creation, development vs. conservation, Linux vs. Windows and now . . . Meccano vs. Lego.

Last summer British Nobel Laureate Sir Harry Kroto touched off a tempest in a teapot when he said during a BBC Four Radio program that the alleged decline in the quantity and quality of young engineers and scientists in the U.K. was inextricably linked to a generation of children that play with Lego rather than Meccano. Although Kroto conceded that Lego was “very nice,” he said that the Danish plastic bricks didn’t teach him anything and their displacement of Meccano’s nuts, bolts and perforated metal strips constituted “one of the disasters of modern life.”

In the months since Kroto’s comments, a straw poll of some of this country’s most successful developers, hackers and engineers has suggested some provocative results. The tally suggests that many IT professionals have rosy memories of their youthful devotion to building toys, and the favourite by a large margin – none other than the allegedly disastrous Lego.

“Computers and Lego came at the same time for us,” said Rob Drennan, a Mississauga, Ont. systems architect who estimates that together, he and his younger brother Brian – also a software developer – have about 11,000 of the little plastic wings, wheels and whatsits.

“The first language I started playing with was Logo, a language intended for children and teaching them how to program, way back in the day,” said Brian Drennan, also from Mississauga, who dates his twin Lego-Logo obsession to the heady days of second grade, some time around 1981.

“(With Logo) you gave instructions to a little turtle and made him draw patterns. So I was thinking it was kind of interesting that as I was learning how to program with a child’s tool, putting simple steps together to end up with a drawing on the computer, at the same time I was putting pieces of Lego together to build simple shapes,” Drennan said.

Although there is no doubt that playing games is very important to a child’s cognitive and social development, Dr. Zopito Marini, a developmental psychologist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., said that the available research is too murky, and the subject is too complex to allow for broad deterministic statements.

“On the Lego vs. Meccano debate, I would say it’s really difficult to prove that one game will make you a brilliant architect, and using another game will make you a brilliant writer. But you can see from very early on that kids do have tendencies and so games should be a way of discovering what you’re good at, and what you like or dislike,” said Marini, a full professor and former chair of Brock’s department of Child and Youth Studies.

“One of the things we don’t want to do is to be too laissez-faire, or be too structured. What we need to do is let the kids loose – within the confines of safety, of course – to play any game where they have to use their imagination. For example, kids that are able to play on their own like that they already exhibit good self-control and self-advocacy.”

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab, research scientists such as Dr. Bhaktiar Mikhak, director of the Lab’s Learning Web, are exploring a constructivist approach to learning that encourages kids to design and create their toys, as well as just play with them.

“The premise is that how you make sense of the world in your head is actually through the act of physical construction of the artifact. So any constructive activity is a really rich avenue to learn about things, because at a personal level you get to look at your creations and reflect back on the ideas that led to them, and at a social level others get to review them and give you feedback,” Mikhak said.

Of course, Mikhak said, the material available to children has to mirror what’s available to them in the real world, so if you want a set of more advanced ideas to become more accessible – such as the emergence of complexity out of simple rules, like evolutionary or ecological systems – you need a new set of tools/toys.

Colin Hoare, a retired information scientist from Glen Williams, Ont. and president of the Canadian Modelling Association for Meccano & Allied Systems, said that although he worked with computers, his hobby didn’t relate directly to his job. However, as a boy he definitely learned some fundamental engineering skills from his Meccano kits.

“There’s no question that I learned how a differential worked, and how steering worked, and of course the principles of gear boxes. So I would do some repairs to my own cars – at least, until they got so computerized it became a chore,” he laughed.

Hoare, who has a “great cupboard full of Meccano” worth over $50,000, also suggested that the beauty of the toy – the time and patience required to bolt every piece of a model together with a little wrench – has also become its weakness “in this era of instant everything.”

When Kroto praised Meccano’s hands-on nature for giving him the ideas about building – ideas that led directly to his 1996 Nobel prize in chemistry for mapping the structure of the C60 cage molecule – his comments may, more than anything else, reflect a generational shift; a shift that sees skills of imagination and abstraction more highly valued in today’s digital age.

“If anything Lego caused me to think ‘What can I do? What can I build?'” said Rob Drennan. “Meccano seems more like you’re going to be the guy who builds a skyscraper, whereas with Lego you’re more like an architect – you don’t really care how they actually build it, you just try to represent how you want it to look.”

When children bring their boundless imagination to a physical construction system that allows modular design of increasingly elaborate artifacts they are able to exercise their thought processes from both directions, MIT’s Mikhak said.

“One (side) is the people who are more planners, so they start from a design and make it completely. Then there are those who start doodling with things first, then something emerges and they get ideas by playing with things. So we have modes of exploration and playing that we can switch back and forth from, and we find that successful people go in and out of these well, and know how to manage them,” Mikhak said.

After 20 years’ familiarity with both blocks and bytes, Brian Drennan picked out another parallel between the eras of Lego, and the eras of computer programming.

“These days there are less modular (Lego) pieces and more molded pieces, like if you buy a boat kit, the hull of the boat is one piece. That’s sort of similar to how when we were growing up computers typically had a programming language built in, like BASIC in the Commodore 64. So you could buy a computer, sit down with the programming magazines, and program for free. Windows XP doesn’t even come with a compiler in it or any sort of programming language. So I don’t know if kids today are growing up with the same kind of computer-Lego relationship,” Drennan said.

The thing to remember through all this, Brock’s Marini said, is that toys by themselves are inanimate objects. It’s how parents cause the child to interact with the toy that’s critical, he said.

“With all due respect to Sir Harry Kroto, I would suggest that you provide children with a range of games – almost like a smorgasbord – and let kids sample from these games. To some extent it is really very difficult to pick what is going to make children tick – sometimes parents spend $500 on a game and the kid will go in the backyard and use a rock to dig a trench. But that, to me, is very important because all of that behaviour has to come out, and our job is to make all their interests flourish.”